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Two more things I miss about Mayo football

Sport

THE WALK OF LIFESupporters make their way to Croke Park along Jones Road before the 2014 All-Ireland SFC semi-final between Mayo and Kerry. Pic: Sportsfile

Parts III & IV

Sketch
Colin Sheridan

3
The minor Fall, the major lift
WE’RE about fifteen minutes into Stephen Spielberg’s epic Saving Private Ryan, and things – to put it mildly – are not going well. The allies master plan to storm Omaha has been met with stiff and brutal resistance. The last words Tom Hanks’ character somewhat naively utters to his troops before hell rains upon their heads are “I’ll see you on the beach”.
Much later, after the sulphur-laden dust has settled, Hanks surveys the bloody scene around him and all he sees is the scattered bodies of his comrades, strewn on the battlefield. Some, trying to pull their fallen brothers up by shoulders. Others (most) lie limp, the young life drained out of them.
It is a vicious and unforgiving scene, and one that I often think of when a Mayo minor team has come up just a couple of points short in their quest for All-Ireland glory.
Six times since 1991 our minor teams lost deciders. Each time, the scene that always followed the final whistle, much like that in Spielberg’s epic, is one of utter devastation – young men dropping to the hallowed grass, broken and disconsolate.
Once their delirious victors have shared their triumphant moment, they suddenly remember their fallen Mayo adversaries and go to comfort them – teenager to teenager – only to find them inconsolable.
As the trophy is raised aloft and the condescending three cheers are dumped upon them like enemy mortar fire (definitely the “it’s not you, it’s me” of the sporting break-up world), the Mayo minors are prostrate with grief now upon the Croke Park turf.
Some may sense a photographer approach and miraculously assume a more flattering prone position, hoping for a national broadsheet cover (the resilient vanity of a Mayo minor – even in anguish – is a thing of wonder). But, all told, there is no moving them. By the time the senior teams emerge from the tunnel for the main event, medics are deployed – just as they were in Omaha beach – to place the (thankfully alive) young men on gurneys and haul them away.
This scene seemed to befall Mayo minor teams every few years, until in 2013, they bucked the trend in incredible fashion. Being there that day was a privilege. I was with a friend in between the minor and senior matches at the back of the Hogan, and we met the family of one of the heroes of that team.
How humbling it was to see the unspoiled emotion of parents and siblings reacting to the triumph of their son and his band of brothers. What a reminder of the power of sport and where it can take us, especially when it is played with almost reckless abandon by youngsters, unburdened by a legacy of doubt and failure.
 It has never mattered really whether our minor teams have won or lost. The juxtaposition of them laying prone and desolate, and them doing a lap of honour is interesting, but ultimately irrelevant. I miss seeing them play.
I miss them blowing ten-point leads and I miss them clawing back ridiculous deficits. I miss their grief, knowing now, as an older man, that it will quickly pass.
And I miss their joy, knowing it too will stay with them forever.

4 The WALK
WE have all said it, lest we be considered ungrateful, but boy oh boy have we been lucky to follow Mayo. Not just the last decade, but the last three.
And, yes, ‘follow’ is the wrong verb. Follow suggests a choice, as if, many of us drifted around for some years, before joining the Mayo football movement and somehow ‘finding our tribe’. That’s not it. What it is, is a consequence of birth.
You are born in Mayo or to Mayo parents and, well, that’s it. It’s less a choice than the name those same parents bestowed upon you, a name which can be changed or modified at a later date.
And so, lucky as we are, one of the privileges bequeathed upon us due to that birthright has been a dozen or so long, sepia tinted summers in the last thirty years.
Summers that saw us make journeys across Ireland, and finally to Dublin to gather first at a bespoke rendezvous point passed down to us like a family heirloom, before making The Walk from the city centre to Jones Road.
I know I speak for many when I say, as a kid, that walk from The Gresham to Croker was the only Dublin I knew. I knew next to nothing of Grafton Street or Stephens Green, and could care less for the Forty Foot or any Martello Tour.
All I needed and wanted was to be amongst my own, heading north up Gardiner Row toward Mountjoy Square. A match ticket and an uncle or two collected along the way. Watching the city turn from red brick to tenement and back again.
The buses parked en route and likeminded souls alighting, stretching as if they themselves might have twenty minutes at the finish in them.
The sight of Gills pub and the realisation that today might be the day that everything changes. Chance encounters with old school mates – now only seen on days like these – and the smell of burgers frying, wafting from dubious looking chip vans.
This walk has the ability to render every worry you have inside your head invalid, or, at least, suspended for four hours. This walk is only a couple of clicks but contains multitudes; not least the hope that the afternoon ahead might be different.
Sometimes, when we’re not involved, we go along and placate ourselves with the notion that’s it’s nice to do it, because, you know you can just sit and watch and not care who wins and not hate yourself by the end of it. We say that. But we don’t mean it.
We couldn’t mean it less. I miss that walk. Every stinking yard of it.

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